Students of Death
By Katrin Kuntz
A group of Belgium’s leading practitioners of euthanasia recently visited the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial to learn more about death and humanity. The trip proved to be just as controversial for the doctors as it did insightful. Photo Gallery: A Trip to Auschwitz
Wim Distelmans is responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people. He’s a man who scrupulously studies his field of work. In London he visited the world’s first modern hospice, and he toured the first home for the dying in Scotland. He has even flown as far afield as Moscow to gain a better understanding of how we deal with death and dying. Now, his next study tour will take him to Poland. Distelmans is a palliative doctor from Brussels — a physician who helps people die. He’s nervous. He didn’t sleep well and he was up early. The prospect of visiting Auschwitz makes him feel uneasy.
On this October morning, Distelmans, 62, is standing at a gate at the Brussels Airport. He’s a man with ice-blue eyes and gray hair that is slightly wavy at the neck. Distelmans is wearing a brown leather jacket over a T-shirt, hiking pants and a blue-and-white striped linen scarf — and he’s taller than the people around him — and quieter. A few hours ago, at five in the morning, he received a call. A friend who is a concentration camp survivor, and had been planning to accompany the group to Auschwitz as a tour guide, has called off her trip because she has come down with a cold.
Distelmans gazes at the people flocking around him. “Good morning, how are you?” he says greeting them, as he slaps the men on the shoulder and kisses the women on the cheek. He says he isn’t sure whether the tour guide’s cancellation has anything to do with the destination of their five-day study tour.
Some 70 people gradually gather around Distelmans. The group consists of doctors, psychologists and nurses from Belgium, most of whom work in the area of euthanasia. One of them is Eric Vandevelde, who during the course of his career has killed 20 people at their own request even as he helps women give birth every day. He’s accompanied by his wife Colette, who was instrumental in introducing Belgium’s euthanasia law 12 years ago. Manu Keirse, a psychologist, is also on hand. He’s the author of 35 books, nearly all of which are on the topic of mourning. There’s also Bea Verbeeck, a psychiatrist who is currently examining a request by a manic depressive man who gambles away tousands during his manic phases. Distelmans, who is the chairman of the Belgian government’s Euthanasia Commission, has invited all of them on a trip to Poland.